New Noise: Algiers Inject Indie Rock With the Black Experience
Algiers prod at the present and pull from the past like seasoned sociologists, but don't you dare call them "revivalists."
Welcome to New Noise, a shout-out to Refused and Billboard.com's column highlighting up-and-coming alternative and rock artists. It's a bi-weekly shout-out to an artist who's just beginning to enter a bigger stage and spotlight, and whom we hope you, the reader, hears much more from in the future.
Indie rock, alternative, guitar music, whatever you want to call it -- needs a band like Algiers.
The sound of the Atlanta-bred trio is built on piercing beats and the visceral howls of the ghosts of black music's past. Algiers built eleven mini-manifestos across its self-titled debut (out June 9 on Matador) that express the black experience through familiar forces like gospel and soul but also trespass -- as the band puts it -- into post-punk, noise, Detroit techno, and New York electro. They don't get wrapped up in current event particulars (no direct mention of Ferguson or Baltimore here) but construct such a fully-formed worldview across past and present that the news ticker often feels nearby. Yes, indie rock needs Algiers, and much more than Algiers needs it.
The genre has deservedly come under fire for its "unbearable whiteness" lately, so an indie stronghold like Matador Records releasing a firebrand debut album like this is a rare triumph indeed. Algiers feared they'd never have the opportunity to perform their songs live until Matador discovered them on the internet, so when you see them play, there's a passionate desperation; they're resurrecting these voices for the present as if racing against the clock before they're lost forever. Fisher wails like James Brown possessed by the ghosts of preachers who died long before him, sometimes ending songs on the stage floor in a frenzied burst of energy. Tesche and Mahan summon spirits like guitar-wielding witch doctors, and having Bloc Party's Matt Tong along as a tour drummer? It's like the rich (in talent) getting richer.
The trio met in Atlanta, then dispersed to London and New York before starting Algiers as a trans-Atlantic project. They're a world-weary bunch, but at Algiers' emotional core, the music brings it all back home.
I really enjoy your music because I don't often hear lyrics with strong racial and social messages in indie rock and rock music anymore. But do you even see yourselves as part of those genres?
Ryan Mahan: When we first set out, we really did have an idea of employing post-punk styles, noisy styles to intervene in different spaces. So for example, trespassing into the genres of post-punk or punk rock, but also equally trespassing into other genres, like soul and gospel. There always has been a sense of intervening in these spaces to hopefully create something interesting within that from a musical standpoint, but also from a social and political standpoint, just basically posing the fundamental questions, "What is it about these genres that make them distinct?" and "What traditions do they actually pull from?" That's always within our thought process -- the thinking of the past, the social foundation of music and the cross-pollination of African music, black music, and asking those questions politically and socially.
I like how you use the word "trespass." It almost implies you're influenced by things you're not allowed to touch.
RM: There's an amazing filmmaker from the U.K. named John Akomfrah who writes and makes films about the black British experience… He did an amazing film called Handsworth Songs, an incredible exposé on black protest movements in the U.K., which were called riots and revolts in places like Birmingham, Handsworth, and London.
It seems like you're mostly pulling from eras of past, in terms of what inspires you now.
Franklin James Fisher: We are inspired by the past, but Algiers is definitely not a backwards-gazing project. A lot of what we do is a reaction to what we're seeing or not seeing and how we think things could be evolving and where they should be going at the same time. A big thing for us it to pay homage to the cultural scenes that came before us. So many people these days try to obfuscate their influences. We all know that nothing is born out of a vacuum.
RM: We're very much against the notion of revivalism and nostalgia that often emerges in a very post-modern and neoliberal context. There's a line between pulling from the past to reassert certain ideas, rather than making certain styles and genres into some easily-digestible package.
As far as music we're influenced by, if you listen to the really rudimentary electronic sounds within our record, that might come from Suicide, Section 25, early Detroit techno, or New York electro. But it's also coming from our own positions of living within London and New York and being exposed to these new electronic scenes. There's a lot of really harsh electronics, so somebody like Helm, who uses really intense electronic soundscapes… that influenced me a lot on a song like "Irony Utility Pretext."
I really like how you use Tumblr outside of the usual press clips and tour dates; it's like a big collage of your influences -- images, quotes, videos, music. Why do you enjoy using it that way?
Lee Tesche: It's a way for us to exchange ideas as individuals, being influenced by different things, sharing them with each other, and having a continual dialogue with different people.
RM: It's very much reflective of our sound as well. It juxtaposes ideas like black emancipation, ideas of utopia, good and bad. Whatever the connotation, it does juxtapose these disparate elements.
You interact a lot with people on Tumblr? What's that like?
RM: It's more of enabling us to interact with each other. It's a platform for exchanging new ideas, rather than going through e-mail, because we live apart. It's a different way for us to exchange without being too heavy-handed or e-mailing 10 links per day.
So it's like a band-wide text conversation, only through Tumblr so everyone can see it.
Lee: And like the music video for the song "Blood" -- essentially that was us discussing having a bunch of clips of things that were important to us… Half of it I didn't know much about because it was brought to me through Ryan or Franklin.
You use a lot of echo and background vocal effects throughout the album. It seems rooted in gospel, but could you tell me more about where it comes from?
FJF: A lot of people have really been focusing on the gospel, which is cool -- it's definitely a component. One thing I've been saying a lot is how when we first started Algiers, the breakthrough for me, learning how to write music came from Ryan and him encouraging me to write what I knew -- the music I grew up with and heard my parents listening to (soul, Motown). That turned into the way I conceived things vocally when these songs were being workshopped and written. For most of the songs, most of the groundwork was laid from very basic rhythms and vocal melodies… We weren't thinking we'd be fortunate enough to play these songs in any live capacity when we first wrote them… For me it's like playing make believe. It's almost like a caricature when I do a background track; it's me trying to sound like all thee things I grew up listening to, like the Four Tops. That's where you get these bellowing guys. It's the "hah!" and "wooo!"
RM: All these voices represent a manifestation of memory, of haunting… It has this ghostly effect that we're pulling from the past and almost haunted ourselves.
Aside from gospel, we really pull from the Ronettes, some of the more prominent women playing soul music in the '60s. Obviously it's a group of men, but we're also influenced by the female backing vocal approach. Also you have Fela Kuti -- that call and response that's influenced by Nigerian and African traditions -- but also when he moved to the U.S. and was influenced by black power and brought it back to Nigeria… He's calling New York or the U.S. and Oakland is responding and he's responding back. There's this really fascinating triangle happening. And obviously the punk rock stuff -- if we were performing in Atlanta in the early '80s, you'd be singing and people would be singing back to you. It's all part of this strange dance.
I want to talk about Atlanta, too. In past interviews, you've seemed dissatisfied with where it's headed. Is it becoming more and more commodified?
RM: With any urban space there's multiple transitions, especially economically. You see an element of neo-liberalization, of urban change, which is quite dramatic at this day and age. That's happening in London. There's this re-commodification of spaces that maybe were built up over time as spaces where real people lived and worked and were able to survive in a city space, or black spaces, or migrant spaces. In some sense of the word, they're being recolonized and taken over by corporate entities. That has a kind of neo-liberal destructive element to it that really changes the dynamics of any space. I think you'll see that in Atlanta, or any major city.
The urban spaces in the South have a unique trajectory compared to New York or London. Atlanta is a place where black politics and black autonomy in business really had strong roots in Atlanta around the '70s, '80s, '90s. There are predominantly African-American office holders running the city, and you see that in other Southern cities as well.
I've never been, so that's interesting to wrap my head around. I've always gotten the impression it's a trendsetter in that sense.
FJF: That's cool as well. When you're growing up in a space it's actually harder to understand your own environment, rather than a place outside of it. So the analyses you might have might be different than ours, because it's so commonplace to us. We would maybe have less of an intellectual understanding and more of a visceral understanding. Leaving Atlanta actually helped us to understand it better.